Calixthe Beyala

FROM "BIRTH OF A MYTH" (CHAPTER 1 OF LES HONNEURS PERDUS)

Let this be clear: my name really is Saïda Bénérafa. Until I was forty-something years old, I'd never been outside Zone Five of New-Bell Douala. I hadn't yet become the young girl of fifty that Belleville is crazy about. But even back then, I was already the number one story on the grapevine.

Why? I was born a few years before Independence. It was in 1940-45, but the exact dates don't matter at all. I was born into one of those legendary neighborhoods that are like the center of the universe, where man's imagination and resourcefulness are larger than life. Survival instincts dissolve the importance of time and space there. Scientists and city planners are speechless as haphazard, tacky houses and sinister watch-towers spring up like mushrooms before their wondering eyes. And faced with this human potential for improvisation, they do just one thing: applaud.

This story takes place in the Republic of Cameroon. There's of course Douala-city, the capital, caught between forest and sea, bedecked with palaces where whitened Negroes lounge in rocking chairs and find their raison d'être in that position; the national public schools, where children shout themselves hoarse repeating "our ancestors the Gauls"; universities where a few European minds think for millions of black brains; research institutions where educated blacks talk a blue streak, criticize each other's work and try to pull the rug out from under one another because they don't know how to do their work properly; cannibalistic State banks, governmental administrations that embezzle public funds, and little Cameroonian theaters where the main obsession is to redo the worn-out bits from cheap old Parisian plays; classes in etiquette and social conduct, where white administrators' wives cheat on their husbands, false coups d'État as well as real intimate affairs; General-de-Gaulle avenues, Félix Faure parks, and whorehouses where you can get off with a whole garrison of cheap whores. I won't go into all the rest.

Then, at the very bottom rung of the social structure, designated by an arrow on the city map—a site of disgrace for the authorities—precisely at the point where the road begins to break up, live strange creatures, who enjoy none of the advantages of living in a large city, but who've also lost the benefits of country life. The main avenue consists of muddy, gaping holes leading to the market in one direction, and out to the middle of nowhere in the other. There are dwellings on both sides of the street, all jammed together, as if to guard against the fragility of their foundations and to protect themselves from the billions of termites gnawing at them. They're built from the refuse of civilization: old commemorative plaques stolen from war memorials; hastily made cinderblocks consisting of three quarters sand, the rest cement; twisted iron pikes, souvenirs of the home village; rusted metal from what had once been French luxury automobiles; relics from world wars that had nothing to do with us: German blankets, G.I. helmets and canteens; canned food and milk with Russian labels; mismatched tiles bonding artistically with corrugated sheet-metal or straw; a little blood, a great deal of sweat, loads of dreams. Electricity doesn't reach our area. All the same, the ceilings of our homes shudder with the weight of Bohemian crystal chandeliers. Our stores have names like "Chez Maxim's" or even "Chez Dior." They sell dense bread, tomato paste by the spoonful, sugar cubes, and rice by the cup. (...) Above all it's Madame Kimoto's turf: she owns the only whorehouse, with a red and yellow front and pearl curtains. It functions as restaurant and sex-shop at the same time. They serve you "sautéed crocodile," "monkey à la provençale," and blond-haired Negro women, sure to give you an STD. The girls perform idly, yet with aggressive delicateness: they serve their johns aphrodisiac mixtures of palm wine and cheap red to keep them from demanding too much subtlety. They flutter their eyelashes, leaning forward so their clients can appreciate their endowments. They strut, sit, cross and uncross their legs repeatedly, and smoke cigarettes like Parisians, with bamboo cigarette holders. And, at the brief signal of a client, a bulky hand on their bottoms—a sign from the boss—they disappear into the alcoves.

In New-Bell, which I also call Couscous, we don't try to be intellectual. We seem to work a lot, but it's hard to get by. Some people devote themselves to marginal jobs and wreck the rest of their lives. You can see them sitting on empty drums or beer kegs, going on about their working conditions, bawling out their bosses: "I'm gonna give it to him, next time he talks to me like that!" "He's taking advantage of me, the bastard! He's exploiting me—that's all he ever does!" Others exhaust themselves at backbreaking jobs but you can't tell because, after all, it's impossible to get rich by working. At twilight, the girls from good families wrap their iro cloths around their chests and jealously watch the black neighborhood girls going out to ply their wares. Pimply adolescents ogle porn albums, their faces burning; three generations sleep in the same room. Grandparents pretend to sleep when legs go up in the air, and little kids in red britches jabber under the sheets when they hear the beds creaking. In the prayer corners of our homes, Allah mats lie alongside wax Christs and ancestor totems. Because here, we are everything and nothing: Animist-Muslim, Fetishist Christian, Buddhist-Catholic. And all these images of God don't shed a tear in the face of our miseries.

(...)

It was in this part of the Republic of United Cameroons—this jumble of life, of colors, of sounds and smells—that I was born.

My birth was an event that set the whole neighborhood in motion. It happened late in the day. A gentle wind suddenly blew through the heavens. Fat stars were applying their make-up, eager to display their pearly eyes. The pebbles were still warm on the earth, smoldering from the heat of the day. The air was sticky and rank, as if it harbored the body of a dead animal or person in its depths.

Suddenly, in the middle of New-Bell, a shrill cry broke out from a veranda, poignant as a breaking heart: "Allah, I have a son! Almighty God, I have a son!"

It was my dad, whose real social status Mama won't ever tell me a thing about. All I know is that they'd once enjoyed prosperous times in their village in North Cameroon, but when the desert spread out, scorching everything in its way, from the bones of the dead to the roots of the trees, they ended up in New-Bell. My dad was a white Muslim Couscoussian in the rank of "unskilled laborer" who hauled sawdust bags on his back for the national wood treatment factory. On that day, he was in good spirits and his round eyes sparkled. With one hand on his hip, a yellow cap in the other, and his white curls all disheveled, he shook New-Bell out of its lethargy: "I have a son! My son is born!" His immense belly gave off a scent of green wood... His gold teeth proved to everyone that he'd risen to a height comparable to that of the revelations of Saint Jean and his Heavenly trumpets.

I wasn't actually born yet. My head was trapped somewhere between my mother's uterus and vagina, as birth's a tough thing to go through. Lying on a mat, Mama was moaning. The sweat and suffering left her raven hair plastered to her temples. She was flailing in pain, her two hands on her abdomen. Her head was twisting right and left incessantly. The midwife was an enormous, bejeweled black woman dressed like the last of the Arab princesses, complete with a big pink djellaba, earrings and slippers. She fussed around as she stood in front of my mother's outspread legs: "Push, push, I'm telling you." Now and again she smacked Mama's pale cheeks with her large hands: "Do you want to kill the child or what? Push, you have to push!" She put her fists on her hips: "If the child dies, it'll be your fault!" She leaned over resolutely and struck several determined blows on Mama's thighs: "Push!" Meanwhile, on the veranda, Dad kept crying out, "I have a son! Allah has just given Jerusalem his son."

Some dogs got frightened by the uproar and began to bark. Women who'd been taking their laundry off the line let it fall into wicker baskets, in shock. As if they were one man, all the residents of New-Bell—the Couscoussians—got up and headed towards Dad's hut, African style, men in front and women behind. The soybean seller, a long, thin Foulbé wearing a ripped T-shirt that had once been white, looked up from the pieces of meat roasting over the coals and asked,

"What's going on?"

"It's Bénérafa, he has a son!" someone told him.

"Really!" he exclaimed, opening wide his eyes, milky like old people's eyes.

He dropped his knife, which was shining in the last ray of sunlight, then wiped his hands on his greasy apron and joined the group.

The early evening was hot and humid, with a breeze blowing from the north; Couscous reeked with the stench of the day's residues. The procession passed by the pharmacist-doctor Sallam's pharmacy. His squirrel-like face peeked out from behind the big white sign where one could read, printed in red letters, as big as hands: SYPHILIS—VAGINAL DISCHARGES—SMALLPOX—TUBERCULOSIS—CLAP—SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES—REDUCED CONSULTATION FEE— INSTANT CURE. He straightened his gaunt figure, cleaned his glasses—which sat on his huge nose all by themselves—on the corner of his white smock, and asked:

"Is it a protest?"

"Just about," the soybean seller answered.

"Very well," said the pharmacist, lowering his awning.

Then he joined the soybean seller and declared:

"It was about time. How do you think the government is ever going to listen to our grievances unless there's a major public protest?"

"What grievances?" the soybean seller asked.

"The ones that will make the officials of the Ministry of Health, Hygiene and Social Security realize their administration's failures, do their jobs and help make it possible for Cameroonians to get free treatment for their all-too common diseases, which are as much the result of poverty as of ignorance—without any outside interference."

"I don't know what you're talking about, boss. What I do know is that Bénérafa has a son."

"That's why you're bothering me?"

"Shut up!" said the soybean seller. "Today's a holiday."

The pharmacist stopped talking, but he joined the procession that was winding its way between the miserable shacks made out of sunset and planks of rotten wood smeared with lime.

(...)

In the end, the crowd outside was so impressive that even migratory birds stopped over Couscous. "Stop! Look! There's a miracle!"

Five minutes later, there was a crowd in front of our house. Blacks, Arabs, Catholics, animists, Muslims, women, and children all jumbled together had come to celebrate my birth. At the sight of my dad, standing tall in the fading day, crowned in glory, you could easily have wondered how so much hope could have ended up in such wretched poverty. He threw his cap into the air and stepped forward with arms outstretched, his feet coming off the ground, and cried out, "I have a son!" He stumbled back as he rearranged the tails of his red French uniform, fastened at the side with gold buttons. "I have a son!" he repeated. And the Couscoussian flock applauded. They all congratulated him: "Way to go, brother." They grabbed one another by the shoulders, large or small: "Way to go!" From time to time there was a yell, then the voice of the enormous midwife could be heard: "Push, push, I'm telling you, push." And outside, between her push-I'm-telling-you-pushes, and the cries of my mother, people kept praising my dad: "Well done, brother." They tousled his hair: "You're a real man now!" Dad accepted the congratulations with the pride of a man sure of his manhood, who had proven his everlasting valor in a thousand battles, undefeated: "Thank you. Very well. Yep, that's right."

A scream punctured the air. In the sky, a flamboyant star appeared in the East. On the earth, there was a void of silence. It was I, a ridiculous red prune, ugly looking, my head dented in by the forceps. I was crying out my pain to the world as if I already knew what I was going to endure.

Dad walked over to the mango tree, faced the brush and pissed abundantly. He readjusted his pants, took his face in his hands and burst into sobs:

"I was beginning to wonder," he said, showing his three gold upper teeth. "Two wives, and I had to let them both go, because they were sterile. Ah! I was beginning to wonder."

"You should never give up hope," an old man said, spitting a wad of tobacco into the dust. "Things happen in their own good time."

"You don't understand," Dad said. "I'd dreamed of being a mechanic, of being rich, of having many sons. And..."

"This is the beginning of your dreams coming true, Bénérafa," someone said. "That has to be celebrated."

"Oh, yes!" a short, skinny black woman agreed. "When destiny takes shape, you have to rejoice and show your gratitude, otherwise..."

(...)

That's when the door opened and the midwife came out of the hut. Even the swallows were mute. One couldn't make out anything but the synchronized exhalations of six hundred breaths, the emanations of food, mixed breathing, the cheap perfume of the widows of so and so and the more expensive perfume of Madame Kimoto's hookers. There was the midwife submerged in that lukewarm humanity; in the blink of an eye she swelled to her full splendor! She suspended her act for a moment and fluttered her small, stout hands that boded no good:

"I need to talk to you," she said to my dad, resolutely.

"Can't you see you're interrupting me!"

"It's urgent, sir."

"Well, fine..." he said.

Dad led her out of the reach of prying ears. The midwife stood on tiptoe and whispered something into his ear. No sooner had he exclaimed, "No!" than six hundred pairs of curious eyes were watching them. Men's eyes, little boys' eyes, shining in the approaching nightfall, women with lowered eyes, still staring behind their dark features—all of these eyes were waiting for a sign from my dad's face, a contorted face that was about to unfurl tears. "That's impossible!" my dad yelled. "What's impossible?" the villagers asked. Crushed, Dad let himself slump over onto the enormous mango tree trunk. He repeated: "It's just not possible."

"Is he dead?" asked the neighborhood official, adjusting his large blue tunic on his shoulders.

"Don't worry," said the carpenter, a dry little man with a face like a cat. "It 's been three days since I've had a burial. I can make you a coffin fit for a prince for a good price."

"What's going on?" everyone asked the midwife.

"I don't have to tell you what's going on," she answered.

"An accident?"

"I'll give you a good deal on a coffin," insisted the carpenter.

"Why won't you tell us?"

The men couldn't hide their impatience. The women were getting restless. Madame Kimoto's girls applauded discreetly, making sure the flowered scrunchies holding their braids stayed in place at the nape of their sticky necks.

The midwife shrugged: "It's not up to me to break the news." And she shot a frank, direct look at my dad, whose face was looking pitiful, before she continued: "All I can tell you is, I did my job! Not one accident in a thirty-year career." She listed the two hundred babies born with forceps who had just the right amount of facial deformation, the three hundred successful surgical interventions performed on nearly-dead pregnant women. While the midwife was flaunting her birthing skills, including relaxation exercises for the perineal muscles, and contraction of the jaws, not to mention the bulb syringe to extract from the newborn's mouth any phlegm that might have accidentally been ingurgitated during labor, Dad began to cry. His sorrow was too intense for anyone to stand it for long. Madame Kimoto walked up to Dad, batted her eyelashes, crinkled her nose and let loose a flow of words:

"What's happening, buddy? The child is born, isn't it?" And in a low voice: "Come see me. I'll take care of it." And again, aloud: "Don't be sad on a day like this."

"Right," Dad said without conviction.

"It's a real shame!" said the carpenter. "You don't run into opportunities like this every day, I swear..."

At those words, Dad burst into laughter.

"That's so funny!" he said.

"What's funny?" Madame Kimoto asked.

"He's talking about death. I would've preferred for my son to be dead instead of being changed into a girl."

"Oh really?" inquired an old man.

"Yes. My son's just been transformed into a girl."

"Rats!" the crowd yelled, not hiding their disappointment.

"Evil eye!" said the old man.

"What a bummer," insisted another. "They'll have only palm wine at the celebration now. What a shame!"

"It can only be a boy," Dad said. "Only a boy could have caused his mother so much suffering that her insides have been in splitting pain since yesterday evening!"

"Not so fast," said the pharmacist-doctor. "An infant's sex is determined at the moment of its conception."

"Shut up, you big mouth," said the old man. "Life's a mystery. That same thing almost happened to my son. I did what I had to, and things have been fine since then."

"What did you do?" people asked.

"I prayed."

"We prayed too," Dad said.

And to demonstrate to my fellow citizens the extent of the sacrifices he had made, he explained that three months into the pregnancy he and my mother were already wearing out their knees praying to make sure I'd be a boy. He took his head in his hands before continuing: "At six months, my wife drank boiled henna infusions every day." He sighed and wiped ten liters of sweat off his brow: "In the seventh month, we went into cemeteries and blew a wad of money on candles so some dead strangers would intercede with Allah in our favor." Dad started sobbing as he finished: "What didn't we do? We did everything!"

My fellow citizens were so startled that they didn't say anything. And it took all the daring of the pharmacist to breathe some life into a situation where there didn't seem to be any more:

"It's not all that bad," he said. "One more woman in a house, a little more warmth in life. Like in the psalms of Solomon: 'Without the queen of Sheba, he would be dead.'"

"I don't want to hear any of that Jewish nonsense in my house!" Dad yelled. "I don't want to hear it!"

"Yeah," my compatriots echoed. "No Jewish nonsense. Look: what did that get us?"

A kid's hazel colored face peered out from between the adults: "A big mess."

Accusing looks turned towards Sallam the pharmacist.

"I've always taken care of you all," he said, defending himself. "Every day I give you flourishing evidence of the uses of the science that I actively practice."

"Traitor!" my fellow citizens protested.

The pharmacist's black complexion turned gray. He shook his balding head and his glasses fell into the dust.

"This is too much! I just can't tolerate this! I was in the First World War, for crying out loud. I killed three Germans man-to-man. I can't stand this."

He fidgeted and stamped his feet, his eyes bulging out of their sockets as he shrieked:

"You're manipulating public opinion. Calling for rebellion, that's below the belt after all I did for the country."

"Calm down, Pops," said the pharmacist's fat wife, appearing abruptly at his side. "Think of your heart."

"My heart," the pharmacist said, giving her a murderous look. "What's wrong with my heart?"

"I'm telling you to be calm."

"No one talks to me that way!" the pharmacist yelled.

His wife didn't listen. She grabbed him by the pants and started dragging him away. He tried to get away from the iron grip that, besides holding his pants, was clutching his testicles.

After a thousand vain attempts to liberate himself from the fat woman's grasp, the doctor-pharmacist became enraged and began to call out insults that no one understood: "Ignoramus! Jerk! Microbe to the third power!" Then, to everyone's amazement, he slapped his wife. Several men rushed to the rescue but the big woman was too fast for them. She seized the pharmacist's groin. He screamed, and without giving him time to react, she lifted him over her shoulders and sent him flying into the dust. He remained there for a few seconds, stunned. He finally opened his mouth and murmured: "The warmth of a woman is a source of life. It's the exact same thing with puddles of water. As soon as the sun shines, microbes proliferate and viruses go crazy. And old folks, flowers, how-do-you-dos—why are they always looking for a ray of sunshine, eh?" Only his embarrassment answered him. He recovered his wits and lifted a vengeful finger: "I served you well!" The crowd mocked him: Ouououh! Between yells and shouts, he added: "I've cured six thousand three hundred fifty-eight cases of syphilis with my permanganate. Eighteen thousand nine hundred twenty-six people with malaria owe their life to me thanks to my extraordinary cinchona root. I've soothed the burning of ten thousand eight hundred menopausal ovaries. Eighty-seven thousand cases of gonococcus, not even counting piddling things like measles, chicken pox, smallpox, and the intestinal and anal parasites that I've put through hell thanks to my genetic genius. You owe your lives to me!"

"We don't give a damn!" someone in the crowd cried out.

The pharmacist picked up his glasses, whimpered like a wounded dog, and fled to his pharmacy, where he stayed put. The crowd was so dumbfounded by the feat of the pharmacist's wife that they just stared at her, petrified. She gyrated her large rear end as if nothing had happened, turned to Dad and said:

"You'd better go check on your wife."

Dad was completely out of it; well before he could come out of his trance, a man cut through the crowd, clutching his pants that were too wide at the waist. In his haste, he struck with his elbow the stomach of a pregnant woman and knocked a kid over. His face was so dark that it shone, and three deep wrinkles crossed his brow. He stood in the middle of the scene and took out an old rusty tape recorder that was held together with wire and old rag strips. With his microphone before his thick lips, he declared in these terms:

"Don't anyone move! By order of Ndongué, news reporter of New-Bell!"

"Too late," Dad said. "You snooze, you lose."

"It's all because of sleep. It completely overpowered me, and when I woke up... well, you know the rest. That's why I appeal to your generosity to tell me in detail what truly happened, without missing one little fact."

"The show's over!" Dad said. "Go home!"

"But I'm working for posterity!"

"Well, you sure missed it today," Dad said. "Some days you got it, some days you don't. Now, go home, everybody!"

A few people tagged along after the fat pharmacist's wife in an effort to better digest the details surrounding the origin of a myth. Others went home in different directions, taking with them rose-colored, sanitized versions of the most exotic scene they'd ever witnessed. A few people close to my family followed in Dad's footsteps and came into our hut. And what about me, you ask? Well, that evening established the beginning of my fame. I was born as all myths are born, by way of rumors. It was said that I was actually of masculine gender and that—through some process of cell transformation brought about on the person of my mom by the expert hands of Mister Pharmacist via multiple punctures of her ovaries and transplantation—they'd removed all my male strength for the benefit of the pharmacist's wife. From that moment on, everyone spoke of her and of myself in a low voice. This legend, which would provoke the worst fantasies in my fellow citizens, was nothing but a lie.

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